God in a Box

If he isn’t going to drink that, I will,” I thought, as Karen, a Vietnamese manicurist, poured Buddha a portion of her morning latte. Karen lights incense and presents fruit, flowers, and something to drink to a statue of Buddha every morning. My mind raced with questions for this lady with whom I am seeking to build an evangelistic relationship. “Has he ever acknowledged your gifts?” I asked her. “Has he ever eaten your fruit offering, expressed enjoyment of the flowers, or interacted with you at all?” Followers of Christ formulate questions such as these as they observe and interact with adherents of Buddhism and other religions. How do we reach people like Karen?

  
Many Buddhists sincerely offer gifts to a
statue that has ears but cannot hear, eyes
that cannot see, and a mouth that
cannot speak.

Hoping for good luck, or maybe even winning the lottery, energizes Karen’s daily ritual. She sincerely offers gifts to a statue that has ears but cannot hear, eyes that cannot see, and a mouth that cannot speak. All the while, God, who neither slumbers nor sleeps, cares not for a caffeine-charged Espresso Macchiato, but for an intimate relationship with her and all those whom he has created.

Personal theology evolves as people, both individually and collectively, seek answers to the worldview questions:

  • What is real?
  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What is wrong with where I am?
  • What is good and what is bad?
  • Who gets to determine or define the good and the bad?
  • How do I act?

Buddhism, for Karen and millions like her, attempts to answer the questions all people ask. All world religions develop a system of beliefs as humanity attempts to answer these questions. Even those who have no “set” religion create god-less belief systems that answer the same questions.

What is real to you about God shapes your thoughts, values, and behavior, and even determines your eternal destiny. Thus, what shapes your view of God demands an investigation. What if that view of God is incorrect or warped? Is God simply a god of humanity’s own creation, one with hands—frozen at his side; a mouth—a stiff upper lip in wordless repose; and ears—without stirrup or anvil, unable to communicate at all? Is he just merely human-made, a “god-in-a-box”? Long ago, the prophet Isaiah said,

No one considers in his heart, nor is there knowledge nor understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire, yes, I have also baked bread on its coals; I have roasted meat and eaten it, and shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” (Isaiah 44:19)

 

The Story of Abraham and Worldview Issues
Many rote evangelistic methods do not even begin to address the worldview issues of a Buddhist like Karen. How about using the story of Abraham? His story takes just minutes to tell, holds interest, and is worldview-relevant:

For the first seventy-five years of his life, Abram lived among idol worshipers, including his own family (Joshua 24:2-3). His worldview was shaped by idolatry; like all idols, the gods of his father were human-made and local. Even some of his later actions demonstrated that Abraham had to move from the idea of a local god who couldn’t protect him (Genesis 20:11) to an unimaginably great creator who took a personal interest in his life, family, future, and even the destiny of the nations.

Genesis 12 reveals a startling change in the life of Abram—a change so significant that he leaves family, land, and familiarity as he hears the unmistakable call of Yahweh, the living God. He comes to know him as God-outside-the-box, the uncontainable God, the invisible God whose hands cannot be seen but move in infinite power, whose unseen ears hear, and whose invisible eyes penetrate darkness. He is the one who sees and knows every hidden thing. God, who made the mouths of humans, appears to Abram and speaks the words: “Follow me….I will make you a great nation….I will bless you and make your name great” (Genesis 12:1-3). Something only God-outside-of-the-box can do.

One only has to follow Abraham’s life to see the living God in action. He speaks and audaciously promises Sarai, Abraham’s barren wife, a child, and then performs the impossible twenty-five years later in the womb of this elderly woman. Consider also how the living God intervenes on the couple’s behalf as he plagues the powerful Pharaoh until he releases Sarah into the hands of Abraham and then deports the couple.

What about the time when God confronts the pleasant dreams of Abimelech in Gerar with a nightmare as he grabs him by the throat and threatens death if he does not release Sarah? Or, when God appears to Abraham and communicates his plans to judge and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Or, when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah by fire as a watching Abraham stands at a distance? Or, when God provides a substitute ram on the crude mountain-side altar in place of his boy?

In faith, Abraham turns from his god made by human hands to the living God.

The Impact of the Story
It takes only a few minutes to tell Abraham’s story to Karen. She is riveted; she can relate to such a story.

Like a well-made documentary, the Old Testament frames the story of the living God as he relates to flawed people like us. No other religious book tells such a story. Only the Bible reveals the living God and divulges God’s story—the story about the God who “declares the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10). He dares to proclaim in verse nine, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.”

The living God cannot be ritually served by offering him fresh flowers, fruits, and cookies. He is intimate, personal, and real. The stories of the Bible reveal God’s intimacy with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Hagar, Rebekah, Deborah, Huldah, and many others. He is knowable.

Stories convey embedded ideologies. Walt Ulmer, former commandant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was asked what he and his staff were doing to build values into future leaders. He stated,

The most effective transmitter of values is the use of value stories or parables. Written codes of ethics or standards are important, but the institutions that best set the tone do it by telling stories which embody their shared values…Stories will be a far more powerful influence than a code in a manual or a set of maxims hanging on the wall.1

We underutilize the story in evangelism. We teach people to follow certain steps, adhere to specific rules or principles, and sometimes lose God-engagement in the process. Evangelism takes place as the hearer becomes engrossed in the story much greater than his or her own—the story of walking with God in a world filled with sin, trouble, and moments of goodness.

God meticulously weaves together this multitude of individual stories into the greater story of his redemption of his people. Scholars agree that the Bible is at least fifty percent narrative. Colin Harbinson observes that

approximately seventy-five percent of scripture consists of narrative, fifteen percent is expressed in poetic forms, and only ten percent is propositional and overtly instructional in nature. In our retelling of the same story, we have reversed this biblical pattern. Today, an estimated ten percent of our communication is designed to capture the imagination of the listener, while ninety percent is purely instructive.2

Revealing Truths through Story
So what does the living God intend that we glean from his stories?

First, the stories reveal truths about God:

  • God establishes boundaries (in the solar system, in reproduction, Garden of Eden rules, in marriage).

  • God evaluates what he has created. (“It is good.” “It is not good that man should be alone.” “Cursed is the serpent.”)
  • God judges sin. (God curses the ground and the serpent and evicts man from the garden.)
  • God makes reconciliation with humanity possible through the shedding of the blood of the innocent on behalf of the guilty.
  • God often gives illogical instructions which require great faith.
  • God uses the difficulties of life to develop godly character and faith in the lives of his children.

Second, the stories reveal truths about humanity:

  • All of humanity has a bent toward evil.

  • Humans, by nature, walk by sight and not by faith.
  • Humans either covers their sin or blame others for their sin.
  • Women have great influence (both positive and negative) over men.
  • A person’s view of God determines his or her response to God (obedience and submission).
  • Faith comes by hearing the words of God.

Third, the stories reveal truths about life:

  • Suffering happens.

  • Things are never as they appear in the natural realm.
  • What one generation does or doesn’t do affects succeeding generations.
  • Life is short and death is unavoidable.

Fourth, the stories address issues with which we can all identify, for instance:

  • Pretty women and their counterparts
  • Power-hungry men
  • Sexual immorality
  • Marriage infidelity
  • Scheming, lying, and deception
  • Disobedience
  • Barrenness
  • Warfare
  • Rebellion
  • Faith
  • Judgment
  • Redemption
  • Relationship dysfunction
  • Purpose

Biblical narratives introduce a God who is outside-of-the-box, loving, genuine, freeing. Tell the stories. Evangelize, preach, and disciple others through stories. After all, the Bible is HiStory.

(Energized by the discovery that many women living in America are secondary oral learners, Iva May developed story-based discipleship materials. This article draws from her resource, W3: Women, Worldview, and the Word: Serious Discipleship in a Secular Culture.)

Endnotes

1. Ford, Leighton. 1991. Transforming Leadership. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 82.

2. Harbinson, Colin. 2006. “Restoring the Arts to the Church: The Role of Creativity in the Expression of Truth,” in The Complete Evangelism Guidebook: Expert Advice on Reaching Others for Christ, ed. Scott Dawson, 163. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Books.


Iva May disciples women through W3: Women, Worldview, and the Word, a narrative discipleship method she has developed. Through this material she also trains women to disciple others. She and her husband served as missionaries in Zimbabwe.